The US has let up from the Trump administration’s ‘Blame China’ explanation for the novel coronavirus outbreak, releasing an “updated assessment on Covid-19 origins” that suggests the virus was “not developed as a biological weapon,” “probably not genetically engineered,” and probably not known of by China before the “initial outbreak” of Covid-19.
SARS-CoV-2 “probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019,” the paper, published on Friday, states.
The intelligence agencies agree the virus was not “developed as a biological weapon” and that “China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.” Beyond that, all but two agencies believe – albeit with low confidence – that the virus was not genetically engineered.
Despite those points of agreement, however, some of the intelligence agencies remain at odds over the origins of the virus and the nature of patient zero’s infection. Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council “assess with low confidence” that the first infection was caused by “natural exposure to an animal infected with it” or a “close progenitor virus” that would be “more than 99 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2.” Another agency claims the first infection came from a “laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Three more agencies can’t make up their minds without more information and have called upon China to provide such.
The part of the document describing how “most analysts” believe the virus is not genetically engineered, also suggests that those analysts could potentially change their minds and that “it will be difficult to increase our confidence” in the natural emergence of such a virus unless further evidence of how its furin cleavage site – the point on the spike protein that “enhances infection” – came to acquire its distinctive shape is provided.
The document also contains an analysis of extant coronaviruses and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2, with the top six most similar being carried in bats and four of those found in Yunnan Province, China. It has been repeatedly established that the wet market initially blamed for giving rise to the epidemic was not the point of infection for patient zero, and that wet market did not sell bats anyway. However, the feature appears to hint that the Chinese lab in Wuhan was creating chimeric coronaviruses.
Creating chimeric viruses is not in itself illegal unless aimed at creating a bioweapon. The US intelligence community did, however, say that “repeated passage of a closely related virus through animals or cell culture – which we consider laboratory adaptation and not genetic engineering – could result in some features of SARS-CoV-2, according to publicly available information.”
Still, Chinese officials “probably did not have foreknowledge that SARS-CoV-2 existed before [Wuhan Institute of Virology] researchers isolated it after public recognition of the virus in the general population,” the paper argues, effectively suggesting Beijing was either breaking international bioweapons laws or too clueless to realize it had a raging pandemic on its hands.
The first hypothesis, shared by four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council, suggests a Chinese researcher was exposed to an animal infected with a virus 99%-plus similar to SARS-CoV-2, despite the absence of any animal carrying such a virus at the lab or any evidence of an intermediate species capable of infecting the human host. The theory also includes the possibility that patient zero’s infection could have been asymptomatic, a possibility that has already been disputed with regard to Covid-19 infection in a study which noted that of 10 million infected patients, the rate of asymptomatic spread was approximately zero.
The second hypothesis, which points to a “laboratory-associated incident,” zeroes in on what was initially believed to be the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, contradicting later revelations that different strains of the virus had been found in Europe and South America before the first announced Wuhan sightings.
Ultimately, the US concludes by pointing the finger at China, declaring the intelligence community will be “unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of Covid-19” unless Beijing allows free access to desired sites and labs. According to the US, Beijing slammed the “conspiracy theory” that places the blame at its doorstep and instead suggested the US government created or intentionally spread the virus in order to “divert attention” away from itself. China’s lack of transparency, Washington insists, is the reason the world does not know how Covid-19 emerged into the world viral scene.
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